WASHINGTON — White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Monday that it was a matter of debate within the U.S. intelligence community on allegations that a Russian military intelligence unit had paid bounties to militants in Afghanistan to attack American troops in Afghanistan, and, as a result, President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were not briefed on the matter.
“There was not a consensus among the intelligence community. In fact, there were dissenting opinions,” McEnany said. “It would not be elevated to the president until it was verified.”
The allegations that bounties were paid by the Russians first surfaced in a New York Times article published Friday. The newspaper reported that U.S. officials concluded the bounties were paid “months ago” based “at least in part on interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals.” According to the Times, Trump was briefed about the bounties, which an arm of Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, allegedly offered to Taliban-linked fighters.
In a follow-up article published on Sunday, the Times reported that intelligence officials and special operations officers believed “at least one U.S. troop death was the result of the bounties.” Suspicions were raised after a large quantity of U.S. cash was discovered during a raid on a Taliban outpost.
White House officials denied the paper’s claim that the president was briefed about the accusations, as did Trump himself. “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me” or the vice president, Trump tweeted on Sunday night.
During the briefing, McEnany was repeatedly pressed on whether the president was told about the matter, if his comment meant he had been briefed since reports about the alleged bounties were published, and if the issue was previously included in the presidential daily briefing, which contains high-level intelligence, including some reports that are not fully verified. The press secretary said she wouldn’t comment “on the president’s private correspondence” beyond saying that he was not briefed prior to the initial article.
“While the White House does not routinely comment on alleged intelligence or internal deliberations, the CIA director, ... national security adviser, and the chief of staff can all confirm that neither the president nor the vice president were briefed on the alleged Russian bounty intelligence,” McEnany said.
She confirmed that a bipartisan group of eight members from congressional committees responsible for oversight on the issue were briefed by the White House about the allegations on Monday.
The allegations are significant because they would represent an escalation in Moscow’s support for the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group that controlled Afghanistan prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. While Russia has officially declared the Taliban a terrorist organization, in recent years both U.S. and Afghan officials have accused Moscow of giving militants weapons and other aid to the group.
The GRU has been repeatedly linked to Russian operations aimed at destabilizing the West, and the Trump administration is currently pursuing peace talks with the Taliban. The Kremlin responded to the initial Times report by suggesting it would address the allegations if they were made officially. A Taliban spokesperson denied its members received bounties from Russia.
Trump’s relationship with Russia has been particularly fraught following conclusions by the U.S. intelligence community that the Kremlin had interfered in the 2016 presidential election — including through operations led by the GRU — with the goal of helping Trump’s campaign. An investigation led by former special counsel Robert Mueller ultimately found there was no evidence Trump’s team cooperated with those efforts, though it was eager to benefit from them.
McEnany brought up Russian election interference and Mueller’s probe, which Trump has repeatedly described as a “witch hunt” and “hoax,” as she denied the Times’s claim that the president was briefed about the alleged bounties.
The press secretary declined to say what action Trump might take if the alleged Russian bounties were verified, saying she did not want to “get ahead of the president on further action.” However, she stressed that Trump has been “extremely strong on Russia” and pointed to sanctions issued against the country and the expulsion of Russian officials from the U.S. in response to revelations about its election interference. McEnany also noted that Russian mercenaries were killed in U.S. strikes on Syria in 2018 after attacks on American troops there.
“There is no stronger advocate for our servicemen and -women than President Trump,” McEnany said, adding, “He never hesitates to act where there is a threat.”
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